I guess I’m going to write about plus/minus again and why Jeremy Roenick is a bad analyst. Please skip this article if any of the following is true for you:
Any of those is a valid reason not to read this, but if you’re still with me, let’s dance.
Here’s what ol’ J.R. wrote in the foreword to his new book, excerpted on whatever thepostgame.com is and which your boy J.P. (not to be confused with J.R. unless you want to mess with him) alerted us to:
How bad do you have to be defensively when you score 51 goals and still end up at minus-35?
The answer is that a player has to be horses— defensively.
I’m paid by NBC to be an NHL analyst. Ovechkin had a ridiculously poor season and unfortunately I had to take him to the woodshed because of that. I called him out, and I think Ovi understood.
But I saw a different Ovechkin in 2015. I saw a player who is fully committed to implementing Trotz’s system. I witnessed Ovi transform himself from a goal scorer to a superstar who is trying to be both a scorer and leader.
Because that is bad writing, I’ll restate his thesis for you: Alex Ovechkin’s minus-35 in 2013-14 was evidence that he was a bad defensive player, but after that he became a better player.
I’m not going to argue that Alex Ovechkin was good defensively in 2013-14. He may have been bad. The problem in Roenick’s (masturbatorily self-aggrandizing) excerpt is that his supposed evidence, Alex Ovechkin’s 2013-14 plus/minus stat, does not support his conclusion, that Alex Ovechkin was “horseshit defensively.” Couple Roenick’s tortured comprehension of hockey statistics with his hot-take tone and you get a singularity of Bad Hockey Writing.
A quick plus/minus explainer. It’s your basic goal differential. Goals scored by the player’s team while he’s on the ice minus goal’s scored by the opponent team. It doesn’t include the player’s team’s power-play goals, but it does include both teams’ shorthanded goals for whatever reason.
Alex Ovechkin’s 2013-14 plus-minus was minus-35, almost the league’s worst (thanks, Steve Ott!). Here’s how it breaks down.
34 - 61 - 4 + 4 - 9 = minus-36
Okay, that’s one off, and I’m not sure why (empty netters? UPDATE: yes), but I don’t have a lot of time right now, so let’s just keep going anyway.
Let’s zoom in on those 5v5 goals and perform two thought experiments:
The Caps allowed 61 goals during 5v5 while Ovechkin was on the ice. Goalies behind Ovechkin saved 90.5 percent that season, the lowest of Ovi’s career. We know that (most) players don’t (reliably or appreciably) drive their goalies’ save percentage, so here’s what would have happened if those goalies saved an average 92.0 percent:
642 opponent shots * .92 save percentage = 51 opponent goals
That’s a change of 10 goals just based on crummy goaltending. (Note to self: send thank you note to Mitch Korn, an apology to Dave Prior, and a lump of coal to Adam Oates.)
Of the Capitals’ 34 goals during 5v5 while he was on the ice that season, Ovechkin personally scored 21 of them. His teammates’ shooting percentage was 3.8 percent, which is lower than John Erskine’s career shooting percentage (3.9), so just imagine that Ovi was skating with 4 John Erskines all season. Here’s what would have happened if his teammates shot a more respectable, but still unremarkable, 8.0 percent:
343 teammate shots * .08 shooting percentage = 27 teammate goals
That’s an increase of 14 goals just based on bad shooting luck. It’s possible and even plausible that something was happening to depress Ovi’s linemates’ shooting that season, but to attribute that to Ovechkin’s individual play rather than random variance or systemic issues would be a bold assertion that would need justification. And if you wanted to attribute bad linemate shooting percentages to being “horseshit defensively,” that would simply make you an idiot.
The Capitals were very bad in 2013-14. When Alex Ovechkin was on the ice during 5v5, they were outshot 642 to 567. But if shooting and saving percentages weren’t so wacky (as those percentages are prone to be inside a 78-game sample), we might expect a different outcome.
642 opponent shots * .08 shooting percentage = 51 opponent goals
567 Capitals goals * .08 shooting percentage = 45 Capitals goals
51 opponent goals - 45 Capitals goals = minus-6
A minus-6 would still be bad for a top-line player on a supposedly good team, but it’s not remotely enough evidence to say Ovechkin was “horseshit defensively” while still retaining an ounce of credibility.
I’ve said this for a while: Plus/minus is a funhouse mirror. Even-strength goal differentials are driven primarily by volatile shooting saving percentages, and that number gets warped further by including shorthanded goals, which the Capitals were truly terrible at preventing that season.
Further, plus/minus is a combination of offensive and defensive numbers, so it’s never accurately indicative of a player’s performance on one particular side of the puck. And the more we know about hockey, the more we learn that the line between offense and defense is blurry, which is part of why the sport is so fun.
I’m gonna wrap this up in bullets, because I’m so over this.
He played 1363 games in the NHL and he brags about being an analyst for NBC, but Jeremy Roenick’s bluster does not comport with his astonishing ignorance about the game he is paid to discuss.
This post was updated to clarify what a “power-play goal against” means. It’s like half of people read that as “opponent shorthanded goal” and the other half read it as “opponent power-play goal.”
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